News from nowhere

In his book Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman points out that until the advent of the telegraph in the 1840s, information was only able to travel about as fast as a train, or about 35 miles per hour. But the telegraph obliterated boundaries of time and space, enabling anyone anywhere to share information—and as a result, the prevailing definition of information was destroyed. Before the telegraph, information was something to be acted on; afterwards, information became something you could use to entertain yourself. Before the telegraph, the news of the day was local, and it was useful; people used it to order their daily lives. But the telegraph made it possible for us to eavesdrop on the doings of people elsewhere who had nothing to do with us: wars and rumors of wars, tsunamis, drownings, murders, stolen elections, royal weddings, blizzards, lotteries.

Postman quotes Henry David Thoreau:

We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate …. We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the old world some weeks nearer to the new; but perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad flapping American ear will be that Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough.

Most of us found this kind of news preferable—it was generally more interesting than what was going on in our neighborhood, and it required no action on our part. In fact, we began to mistake our emotional response to the news for action. Now we could participate by being outraged, or excited, or sorrowful, or ecstatic, or worried. It became important to have a strong and forceful opinion about every last event, no matter how baseless or ill-informed that opinion is, no matter how unlikely the opinion is to influence the event itself.

As a result, we are now impotent. Partly because we have learned to substitute emotion for action, partly because we have forgotten how to take action, and partly because we have forgotten how to distinguish between events which concern us and events which don’t. We send an email urging somebody on the other side of the country to do something, and we think we have done something. We figure out a legal loophole and tell a friend about it, and we think we have done something. We urge a politician to defy the law in a way that we wouldn’t dream of doing ourselves, and we think we have done something. We publicly despise that same politician for ignoring our advice, and we think we have done something.

If you aren’t yet ready to turn a blind eye to the news of the day, consider a gentler suggestion. When the mass media present the next crisis for your delectation, ask yourself if you would even know about it if it weren’t for television, radio, newspapers, newsmagazines, or weblogs. If the answer is no, then the event has no direct connection with your life, and you should think twice about artificially creating one.

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3 thoughts on “News from nowhere

  1. And yet, one thing we can always do, that does make a difference, is pray. If we hear about a calamity, we can pray. If we hear about a politician who was caught in some absurd indiscretion we can pray (probably about *several* things). If we hear about people being martyred for their Christian faith in far off parts of the world, we can pray. If we hear that our government is contemplating some particular action, we can pray.

    And having prayed, we can put it aside. I agree that the here-and-now should be far more important in our lives than the there-and-then, and should take up correspondingly more time–a point I need to try harder to live.

  2. Will,

    That’s a good response when one inevitably finds oneself in that situation. But I also renew my resolve to avoid them in the future. There’s a progression from responding to awfulness with prayer, to seeking out awfulness in order to pray for it, to seeking out awfulness in order to fuel “ain’t it awful” gabfests with friends. No need to avoid a slippery slope just because you might slip—but important to be aware when you’re slipping, and to take measures against it as soon as possible.

  3. I mostly agree. I don’t follow the celebrity scandals at all, for example; if I were to hear that Biff has broken up with Tawny, chances are I wouldn’t know that Biff had gotten together with Tawny, or for that matter who Biff and Tawny were. But I think there’s a certain minimum of being informed that’s needed to be a good citizen.

    I do find that being informed via prose is preferable to being informed via video–it’s easier not to respond emotionally.

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